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Happiness Vs. Meaning Vs. Psychological Richness: What’s Your Definition Of The Good Life?

Happiness Vs. Meaning Vs. Psychological Richness: What’s Your Definition Of The Good Life?

the good life

Do you understand the difference between demotivated and unmotivated? I didn’t until a week or so back when, while telling my partner about my current state of mind, I realised that ‘demotivated’ in not the correct word. I’m not demotivated, in that I don’t feel any less eager about my work, or believe in it any less. I’m unmotivated – in that, I just don’t feel like doing it. The difference may sound subtle, but the two feelings are world apart. Last evening, when I told a friend about the lack of motivation over a cup of hot chocolate, she nodded her head. ‘I know exactly what you mean,’ she said. She went on to pin her own “unmotivation” on work from home and the saturation of city life. In short, life these days doesn’t feel like the Good Life. So when I came across the concept of ‘psychological richness’, I was rightfully intrigued. With just a perfunctory look at the definition of psychological richness, a light bulb flicked on in my mind. This was it! This was why I – and my friend – was feeling unmotivated. We no longer have psychological richness in our lives. 

In a paper titled A Psychologically Rich Life: Beyond Happiness And Meaning, researchers Shigehiro Oishi and Erin C.Westgate say that a psychologically rich life is “characterised by a variety of interesting and perspective-changing experiences.”

Working from home feels like the polar opposite of this. I spend my hours between two rooms, and on most days, I don’t speak to anyone other than family. My days are comfortable, but they are painfully predictable. Combine this with the inconvenience of heavy traffic, long distances and busy schedules that are symptomatic of city life, and you have no room for spontaneity. No opportunities to cultivate psychological richness. 

A psychologically rich life is not always a happy one. It is full of novel experiences that put our beliefs under scrutiny and make us look at things differently. Coming across this study was a psychologically rich experience for me because it made me the other two types of The Good Life from a different lens. 

Psychologist and philosophers tell us that The Good Life is either a happy or a meaningful life. My life is happy. It has meaning through the work I do. Yet, over the last year and a half, happiness and meaning have become inadequate. The lack of variety has dulled my intellect and joie de vivre. Most importantly, it has taught me an important lesson about myself – for me, The Good Life is a mix of all three types – happiness, meaning, and psychological richness. 

The Happy Life 

A Happy Life has all the ingredients of conventional and systemic stability. It is based on having financial security, stable and healthy relationships, and predictable, routinised days; on accruing positive life experiences. Pleasantness, comfort, safety and stability are seen as virtuous. Material and relational wealth are important for this kind of a life. 

A Happy Life is what our Indian society would so love for all of us to fit into – a neat and linear trajectory that is based on quantifiable measures of both personal and professional success. Educational qualifications – check. A stable job – check. Marriage – check. Kids – check.

According to one study, 69% of respondents from 42 countries rated happiness as ‘extremely important’. This goes out to show that A Happy Life is a popular choice. 

The Meaningful Life

A meaningful life is one that is lived with purpose, and is centred around a pursuit or belief that is considered valuable. It is based on the realisation that the world we live in has no intrinsic meaning or value. We – as individuals – make things meaningful by ascribing value to them. Having more of what you value than the things you don’t value so much, makes a meaningful life. 

Personally, for me, it’s been most liberating to learn that life has no meaning in and of itself, and that we are free to ascribe meaning to it. If you want to understand why a life that is based on meaning is a Good Life, you must read Viktor Frankl’s seminal book, Man’s Search For Meaning in which he chronicles his experiences in Nazi concentration camps. He writes, ‘A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes – within the limits of endowment and environment- he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.’

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In simple words – your external life may be what it is, but it is up to you to create value and meaning within it. 

The Psychologically Rich Life 

A psychologically rich life may be happy or not. It may have meaning or not. But it surely has variety and diversity of experiences that widen one’s horizons. Moving to a different city for college or work, starting a new job, befriending people from different cultures, traveling to new cities – all such experiences add psychological richness. Those who value psychological richness also value personal growth, autonomy, self-acceptance and purpose. 

But it’s not always positive experiences that add to psychological richness. Any experience that changes our perspective, and teaches us something new about ourselves or the world, is a psychologically rich experience. This may even be the loss of someone we love, divorce, or an accident. 

As long as it helps us grow. 

Life isn’t that black and white – there’s always some overlap between the three types of The Good Life. But if you had to choose one, which one would you pick? 

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